A few months ago I began writing about ‘social conservatism’ and the Labour tradition, and the ruckus currently taking place with those social liberals who like to call themselves ‘progressive’, and those who aren’t quite signed up to the whole project and are therefore labelled, by the ‘progressives’, as ‘social conservatives’ (you’ll gather that I treat such labels with scepticism). And it is a theme that has taken off – for my own part, by far the most popular search term used by people stumbling across my blog are variations on the theme of ‘Labour social conservatives’.
One can hardly be surprised at this. As New Labour has been forced to scrabble around for votes in a way that it has not had to do for previous elections, it has been forced to address those ‘core votes’ that, one suspects, it would very much prefer to keep at arm’s length. And, for the new radicals in the metropolis this brings home an awkward truth: that the simplistic ‘liberal v conservative’ narrative it has tried to construct breaks down not only within the political sphere (the Conservative Party is now signed up to the ‘progressive’ agenda along with everyone else), but also within the realms of its own voting bloc. Enchanted by metropolitan pressure groups, the metro-left has dominated the Party but alienated the country – tribalism and a lingering distaste for the Tories is all that keeps it afloat. In essence, Labour’s ‘progressive’ march has had the consequence of alienating large chunks of its own vote, and only now, post-BNP, are Labour beginning to come to terms with the consequences of this neglect.
For which reason, it is not really surprising to find occasional outbursts of ‘socially conservative’ sentiment emanating from the left, although always to a howling chorus of criticism from the ‘progressive’ wing. The latest example is the speech from (Roman Catholic) Jim Murphy today, building on recent research conducted by Theos, on the importance of ‘faith voters’ in determining election outcomes, and the correlative importance of not alienating such people. In short, Mr Murphy recognises the fact that faith and politics will mix, because for the believer the two cannot be neatly separated – to use the words of C S Lewis: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’ Some will welcome this interjection; others will denounce it; others already think it has come far too late.
Yet, though a Catholic myself, I’m not sure I see this as a positive development, certainly not if what’s happening in America is anything to go by. And when the secular liberal atheists turn up the volume of their hate-filled denunciations I will, though finding them completely batty, have some sympathy (though from a different perspective) for the view that they are expressing – for when religion and politics ‘mix’ then a polarisation has already occurred, and the most likely consequence is unthinking dogmatism from both sides.
Perhaps the frustrating part of all this is that, whilst the anti-religion lobby can wring their hands about such a development, and the ‘progressive’ lobby can cite it as evidence of the regressive nature of religion that ought to be crushed under the ideological foot of the ‘progressive’ agenda (Catholic adoption agencies, anyone?), it seems to me that they resolutely fail to recognise the most important feature here – that it is their own sectarian approach that has helped create the fissure, and that continues to drive a festering thorn into an already weeping wound. In short, we always held our political settlement as superior to others for the reason that, though we are a Christian state, we managed to keep religion and politics separate – but that only remains true up until the moment that politics begins to attack the moral, ethical and social foundations of the religion that has had such influence in forming this country.
If, historically speaking, politics and religion did not mix, then it was because there was essentially no need for them to, because there was a settled moral consensus that allowed politics to concentrate on matters political, and the question of how best to relieve poverty, or conduct foreign policy, or manage the economy etc. Or, expressed differently, religion and politics did not mix because they were never really separate: they complimented each other, and could therefore respect one another’s territory. However, once the political agenda altered course and began to attack those very foundations, then can anyone really be surprised if some rise and fight back, with the defence of those norms being their chief concern?
I happen to think that in this country there is now a ‘Catholic vote’, maybe even a broader ‘Christian’ vote, and each of them can only bear with so much patience what appears to be the direct and unrelenting attacks on their freedom, identity and beliefs. However, these voting blocs are, for my money, to be mourned rather than welcomed – they represent social fragmentation, the legacy of which we shall bequeath to our young as the charred remains of a once harmonious society.
UPDATE: It’s probably worth adding this shot across the bows of Keir Starmer by Gordon Brown, over the legalisation (or otherwise) of assisted suicide.
A post here from Tom Harris today who argues that ‘progressives’ are ill-at-ease in the Tory Party, and naturally belong in the Labour movement, whose raison d’etre is at one with the ‘progressive’ agenda. You’ll have to read the post yourself to witness the crudeness of the caricatures, but needless to say it basically works out Labour=progressive, Tory=dinosaurs.
Now, it is not my intention to defend the Tory Party, not least because I’m neither a member of the Tory Party nor do I think the ‘progressive’ agenda is itself loyal to any one tradition – it drifts on the wind, and will vote for whoever promises change at the quickest rate.
Rather, I’d like to suggest that, in seeking to unify the territory of the Labour Party and the goals of the ‘progressive’ agenda, Tom Harris artificially forces the Labour party into a socio-cultural agenda that is not necessarily reflected amongst swathes of voters who would traditionally see themselves as Labour. A couple of examples will suffice.
You’re a Roman Catholic in, say, Glasgow, and politically speaking your vote is a tribal issue, a generational Labour voter, and you’d rather urinate razor blades than vote Tory. However, your genuine concerns about abortion, for example, have the ‘progressives’ jumping up and down and writing you off as a regressive chauvinist, opposed to ‘equality’ and female rights, a bigoted tyrant happy to curtail the freedom of women solely because of your silly superstitious beliefs (one can hardly deny the vicious anti-religion rhetoric of the ‘progressives). Or again, let’s say that, consistent with the millennia-old teaching and tradition of your Church, you happen to think that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that even if the government seeks to give rights to homosexual couples on a range of issues, you don’t see why the teaching of your faith should be trumped by the ‘progressive’ agenda when it comes to the schooling of your children. Here, you’ll be called a bigot, a homophobe, a dogmatic dinosaur ill at ease in the modern world, an abomination in a civilised society, whose bigotry shouldn’t be tolerated, and certainly shouldn’t be pandered to. And who will lead these protests? Well, that’ll be those ‘progressives’ – you know, Labour, apparently. For entirely understandable reasons, you might think twice when standing in the polling booth and wondering whether to continue casting your vote in the way you have always done.
Or another example. Let’s say you’re an elderly gentleman, fought in the Second World War perhaps, living in the same town you have lived in all your life. You’re from a working class community and your vote is tribal, it’s been the property of Labour all your life, and you’d rather chew glass than vote Tory. Yet you look around your hometown and you see it is now swamped with various immigrant communities who, in your own view, make little effort to integrate in any meaningful sense. Everything about your town has changed, and it appears to you that the ghettoisation has clearly not been for the better. You suspect that immigration policies have become a problem, and you think multiculturalism has exacerbated the situation: being a patriotic sort of chap, you reject cultural relativism as you think British culture is something superior to some others, and is worth fighting for, in a World War perhaps, and you say so. And now, who is leading the howls of ‘racist’, ‘xenophobe’, ‘fascist’, ‘BNP’ that you are confronted with? Well, that’ll be those ‘progressives’ – you know, Labour, apparently. Again, you might see your pen wavering when it comes to casting your vote this time round, or else you might not bother to turn up at all.
These are just two quick examples, and I could offer so many more. But rather than drag out the point, it’s worth just summing it up with the observation that people like Tom Harris ought to be a little more careful is seeking to paint Labour as the embodiment of all things ‘progressive’ – a rather significant chunk of its usually loyal voters are, in fact, socially conservative (as defined by the ‘progressives’ of course, pejorative connotations intended), and these are the very people sick and tired of being in the unrelenting and often vicious firing line of the self-proclaimed ‘progressives’. As such, if New Labour want to continue to offer themselves as the true and committed champion of the ‘progressive’ agenda, then it needs to prepare itself for a loss of votes. And it should also accept that one day it will have to reap the rewards of its decision – electorally speaking, the BNP will be the very tip of the iceberg.
To my mind, there is no movement so intolerant as the ‘progressive’ movement. All narratives but its own must be crushed underfoot, and the awesome power of the state must be used to do so. The progressive movement would opt for totalitarian government if it could, because so convinced of the moral superiority of its own narrative, it is absolutely unwilling to accept anything other than its own proclamations, implemented in full, as the definition of ‘progress’. Unfortunately for Labour there are those within its own ranks who have a different vision, who follow a different narrative – abandon them at your peril.
Here’s an article of mine that has just been put up on the new ResPublica blog (“the Disraeli Room”) – read it here. Or, if link-clicking isn’t your thing…
There can be little doubt that the most fashionable idea in contemporary political debate is that of ‘localism’. It is an ideology receiving scrutiny on all sides of the political divide, and its most vociferous supporters, messrs Hannan and Carswell, have attracted huge public followings. Part of its popularity lies, on the political level, in its call for the electorate to have a more direct influence on the shape and direction of the political process. Though on the social level, too, the localist narrative has exciting potential; to renew and strengthen social relationships, to engage alienated and isolated pockets of society, and to help cultivate a pride in those ‘little platoons’ that so often prove the glue for any healthily functioning society. For this reason, the fact that the localism agenda now challenges the default methodological statism of so many of the political classes is surely a development to be warmly welcomed.
Or is it? That is, could it not equally be suggested that localism is not really the antidote to the state authoritarianism of recent years, but rather risks becoming a radical continuation of it?
Of course, there is an element of mischief to this question, and one possible response will always be ‘it depends what you mean by x.‘ Nonetheless, the notion I am trying to explore is whether a localism that confines itself to tinkering with political structures and processes (‘from Whitehall to town halls’), and neglects to argue the positive case for local involvement in formal and informal social institutions, runs the risk of further entrenching precisely that which those exasperated with the burden of an over-mighty state have for so long sought to counter. In short, could it be the case that localism without a coherent notion of ‘society’ risks becoming that which it seeks to repudiate?
Why is this so? Well, if the civic realm is moribund then any dispersal of power from the centre merely entrenches locally that which is dictated nationally – without a vibrant social sphere in which to situate it, localism is essentially a provincial version of statism. A battalion of local officials will inherit those powers that once belonged to civil servants in Whitehall, thereby replicating those same political oligarchies that occupy the centre. Localism thus becomes a stale political methodology, rather than a vibrant social philosophy, and the winners and losers will tend to be the same. Here, it is always the most actively engaged that will win out – vociferous and highly involved pressure groups will have a disproportionate effect on local priorities, and single issue politics would rule the political roost.
This risks exacerbating the feeling of alienation, of detachment from the political and social landscape, rather than alleviating it. After all, the inefficiencies of Whitehall make it a more cumbersome proposition than the highly targeted mechanisms of the local council, and those living under the threat of the latter might well long for the relative anonymity afforded by the distance of the former. With power dispersed locally, the roots of public sector power will naturally embed much deeper, so that disentangling oneself from overly zealous officialdom, for example, may well prove as odious a task as ever it was. In sum, if localism merely becomes centralised governance in Lilliputian form then it will aggravate frustrations, not soothe them.
As such, it should always be emphasised that the localist agenda has to remain a cultural and philosophical project, every bit as much as a political one. It requires a critique, and a coherent response to, the ‘broken society’, even whilst it is part of the proposed solution. The argument has to be made why civic engagement is valued, why it behoves the individual to become actively involved in the formation and support of local associations and structures of society, both formally and informally, and why this can make a genuine difference for everybody involved – and the space has to be cleared to allow this to happen. In short, localism needs a vibrant society to uphold its benign form: and it reinforces that vibrant society when it is successfully adopted.
Accordingly, any conservative embrace of the localism agenda must be coupled with a commitment to a renewal of ‘society’, because it is this that underpins the whole project – and which stops localism becoming the vehicle for either detached libertarianism, or localised statism.
Quite often one comes across a totemic issue that not only seems ill-suited to the tradition in which it has nested, but also seems to go against everything it is that particular tradition proclaims itself to stand for. And it seems to me that, for the left, the ‘Living Wage’ is just one of these issues.
Now of course, we all know the background behind the idea, the shocking levels of inequality, the people struggling to get by, working huge amounts of hours, living in a heavily taxed world, and trying to do it all on a terribly low wage. And we can all decry the poverty, rail against the injustice, and commit earnestly to seeking a way to resolve the situation. But it seems to me that, if that is really your goal, then the Living Wage is a cop-out. It is a convenient non-sequitur which makes a few people feel a little better about themselves, whilst having little effect on those at the bottom who find their new handout immediately swallowed by the inevitable inflation that follows it.
And so, the question is this: if you wish to empower those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, to lift them out of working poverty, then do you really achieve it by merely tinkering with the terms of their servitude? If an individual has nothing to trade but their labour, then do you really make them richer by simply clarifying the contract upon which that labour is bought? Or, alternatively, do you do it by giving them the opportunity to have something else, something tangible, to sell? Chesterton once famously said that the problem with capitalism is that there are too few capitalists – the problem with contemporary society is that we tend to fall over ourselves to subsidise too few capitalists, and do it in the name of protecting the masses.
I suppose that what I am saying is that it would be a fatal lack of ambition if one was to say that the only legitimate scope of the state is to protect the worker, which all too often really means protecting big business from the reality of smaller competition. If the state is to subsidise at all then it should be to liberate and empower the individual, the family and the community – and not to merely negotiate more favourable terms of surrender.
Now, whenever debates like this come up, it is interesting to observe how many people end up taking positions they don’t really believe in, all in order to better oppose those things which are really quite believable. For example, when it is pointed out, entirely accurately, that centralised imposition of working terms can be disastrous for smaller business, then the response needn’t be (as it has often become) to therefore prioritise big business as being more capable of implementing the terms of the state, or to pledge state money to subsidise those businesses who can’t afford to implement such policies. Rather, it would be better to point out the rather obvious fact that if more people had more small business, if a greater amount owned a greater portion, then policies such as this might be rather less necessary in the first place.
Further, when it is suggested that the country needs big business to provide jobs and security, it might be worth suggesting that if a significant chunk of the population had genuine economic autonomy then they might be rather more resilient to the fluctuations of the markets and the bouts of joblessness and hopelessness that ensues. Indeed, those very markets might become more vibrant, nuanced, diverse and accessible, and therefore not subject to the blind whims of the oligarchies who control them.
And finally, when it is suggested (as it always is) that we must do things step by step, without any sudden movements, and so for the short term we should settle for making the servitude more bearable, then I would immediately suggest that you might as well, in that case, redirect those small steps and head toward genuine economic empowerment, since this would help make life a little more bearable too, and at least the final goal is one we can all agree is worth walking towards at all.
All is not gloom and doom of course, and new shoots of thought are being explored, or rediscovered (depending on who you believe) that with the subtlest of changes can help transform the worker into the owner, and genuinely help re-capitalise those who have been stripped of all wealth and assets. And if this is to be one of the future directions of the economic settlement then it is surely to be welcomed. I only hope that in the meantime the project isn’t surrendered once again to those who would endlessly oscillate between one servitude and another, the State and the market, and all under the fallacious guise of helping the worker.
I am no economist, and would never claim to be, and I have no doubt that a clever individual with long words and detailed graphs could produce a thousand plausible arguments against what I suggest here. And I would be interested to listen, and be educated in the mysterious and fantastical ways of advanced economics. Nonetheless, the second it is suggested that we should, as a society, settle for a deepened continuation of the status-quo, then we should cease to be so charmed, whether by the economist or the politician, and should demand something much more radical.
This article appeared on LabourList on February 12th, 2010.
It is finally becoming evident that the free-marketeers want anything but free markets. Indeed, if recent events are anything to go by, it rather seems that free-marketeers are in fact committed to nothing less than the absolute liberty of the biggest and strongest to go about distorting and perverting the market in whatever manner best suits their aims. If this were transposed to the playground it would shine forth in all its glorious absurdity: picture a motley gang of libertarians standing on the edge of the playing field protesting to the teacher that the bully currently flushing smaller boys’ heads down the toilet should have the absolute freedom to do so, as this is the optimum condition for all the other boys to also become strong and successful.
That either party should think this even remotely desirable is beyond me. Of course, there is a reasoning behind it. After all, the more successful the business sector then the higher the tax take, with which any particular government can bribe the disenfranchised electorate to keep on offering themselves as fodder to the markets – a vicious circle if ever there was one. I only wish more would have the courage to recognise this for what it is: the social and political acceptance of servitude, and the vague impulse to merely negotiate more favourable terms in response.
Of course, this will be mocked as some kind of socialist nonsense. I could only reply that it is nothing of the sort, not least because the reaction of socialists is only ever to swap one slavery with another, and so until somebody gives me an answer as to why the current situation is preferable to any other, then I don’t see why one should cease to state the blindingly obvious.
Now, in a fictional world where the romanticised caricatures of our great political traditions might reflect reality, it would be pointed out that Labour ought to reject this silly settlement, as its aim should be to empower the worker, not to weave him ever more intricately into the deceit. And indeed, in that same fantastical world, one might add that the Conservatives should also reject it, because the awesome power of the slave owners leaves them perfectly able, and certainly willing, to nonchalantly cast aside precisely what it is they, as conservative individuals, wish broadly to conserve – the individual, the family, the community, ‘society’.
Until that day dawns, we shall have to deal with reality.
However, there is hope. Following hot on the heels of the Cadburys takeover, and indeed the closure of the Teesside Corus plant, it seems to me that, if there are any signs of a backlash against this idiotic regime, then it is coming not from our political masters, but, as ever, from those at the bottom. And it is in that most hallowed of British working class institutions that the stirrings are most clearly visible: football. After all, whilst the outpourings of grief over the Cadburys takeover lead to no discernible action, save for a government bribe here and there, this is manifestly not the case with football clubs.
As the green and gold revolution currently giving the Glazer family the jitters perfectly demonstrates, and as the relentless rise of FC United serves to emphasise, there are some things too valuable to be treated as the profit-making ragdolls of the super-rich. And it does not end with Manchester United. Indeed, if the supporters get their way, then Liverpool and Newcastle United will one day soon be in the ownership of the community too. And they wouldn’t be the first to do so. Whilst Barcelona remain the apotheosis of community ownership, Exeter City and Ebbsfleet United are giving it a go in this country too. The principle lying at the heart of all this is clear – this club is ours, a part of the very fabric of this community, and it should, in some tangible sense, remain so.
It does not require too great a leap of imagination to recognise where this fits in with such shameful episodes as the Cadburys takeover – Cadburys was every bit as important, every bit as embedded in the shared identities and consciousness of the community it served and was served by. And if there was ever a role for the state in seeking to help society cope with the sharper edges of the monopoly capitalist system, then it seems to me that this remains a relatively unexplored one.
There has, in fairness, been a small wave of alternative thinking on this issue – though the smug claim of many on the intellectual left that mutualist and co-operative thinking is their natural ideological territory can only leave one to question why it has taken them so long, if this be the case, to recognise such a fact, and then find the conviction to do something about it. In the meantime they continue to lose said territory to the conservatives, who have, in my humble opinion, every bit as much a claim on it as any revolutionary – the liberated individual, the stable family, the empowered community, the harmonious society, the very health of those little platoons: all of these things cry out for a fairer economic settlement.